A Quite Literary Catfight

by Con Chapman

In January of 1980 on The Dick Cavett Show the host asked guest Mary McCarthy, the novelist and critic, which writers she considered overrated.   McCarthy mentioned Pearl Buck, John Steinbeck, John Hersey (her judgment seems  to have been vindicated in these cases) and Lillian Hellman, a playwright and  memoirist whom McCarthy said was “tremendously overrated, a bad writer, a  dishonest writer.”  Cavett, in his puckish way, probed deeper; what, he asked,  was overrated about Hellman?  McCarthy—never one known to mince words—replied  “Everything.  (. . .) every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and' and  ‘the.'”

Mary McCarthy

The remark was funny and provocative in the way that good talk show  repartee should be, but it wasn't improvised;  McCarthy (as she said at  the time) had previously made the comment in an interview, and she had been  prompted that Cavett would ask her the question before she went on the air.   Just as Oscar Wilde rehearsed his apparently spontaneous epigrams like an actor  playing before an opening night crowd, McCarthy knew what she wanted to say and  she said it.

Lillian Hellman

What might have passed unnoticed in a literary magazine or at a cocktail  party was broadcast to member stations of the Public Broadcasting System,  however, including one playing on the television of the object of McCarthy's  derision.  Hellman was incensed and called Hersey, suggesting that they join  forces and sue McCarthy.  Hersey tried to persuade Hellman not to take legal  action, but Hellman went ahead, suing McCarthy, Cavett and PBS for damages she  claimed totalled $2.25 million.  (Note to non-lawyers: There is no necessary  relationship between damages claimed and injuries actually suffered.)

Thus began a legal battle over a flip remark intended to wound a long-time  rival that turned the American popular literary scene—back when there was such  a thing—into a Civil War battlefield.

Hellman at the age of seventy-five was the older of the two by seven years,  the author of a number of plays that had met with varying degrees of success  (one ran for 691 performances, another closed after just seven).  She was a far  leftist, which in those days meant a defender of Josef Stalin and a critic of  Leon Trotsky.  It is difficult at this late date, long after the fall of the  Soviet Union, to understand the fierce antipathies that the various schisms of  Marxism held towards each other then, but in present-day terms it would not be  too far off the mark to say that the counterpart of a Trotskyite might advocate  for the U.S. to get out of the middle east, while a Stalinist would have no  problem with bombs from Iran bursting in air over Tel Aviv.

McCarthy, like Hellman, had achieved a popular yet highbrow literary success  that is hard to imagine today.  Her 1963 novel The Group follows the  post-college careers of eight graduates of Vassar, then an all-women's school,  as they navigated uncharted waters where birth control—and thus sex—were still  uncertain propositions.  For a coed of the mid-sixties it was the sexual  equivalent of the Fannie Farmer cookbook as a basic introduction to what lay ahead.

McCarthy was the more attractive of the two by a long shot; not movie-star  beautiful, perhaps, but the sort of face and features and demeanor that, when  combined with a piercing intellect, reduces college boys to drone bees buzzing  around a queen.  Hellman, by contrast, can charitably be described as plain, and  more accurately as homely.  Hellman was the lover of detective fiction writer  Dashiell Hammet, or more precisely one of many; Hellman was home base in a game  of tag that Hammett, a compulsive womanizer, played with her over three  decades.

Hellman and Dashiell Hammett

McCarthy, on the other hand, held the whip hand in her relationships; she  dumped Philip Rahv (according to one wag's view) for Edmund Wilson because the  latter's prose outshone the former's.  (Editor:  Dream on, writer, dream  on.) One source suggests that McCarthy developed an enmity towards Hellman  after Hellman slept with, or at least made a pass at Rahv.

By the time of the Cavett show, Hellman's reputation exceeded McCarthy's  based on her three volumes of memoirs that began to appear in 1969 with the  publication of An Unfinished Woman and ended in 1976 with Scoundrel  Time. It was these works that McCarthy probably had uppermost in her mind  when she made the crack about “and” and “the.”

McCarthy was said to have thought the news of the lawsuit against her was a  joke when she first heard it, but she became deeply concerned once she  understood the gravity of the situation; she had accumulated very little money  as a result of her writing, while Hellman held the copyrights to Hammett's  works, which are still in print and are likely to remain so for a long time.  Hellman was loaded  for bear, and McCarthy was low on ammo.

But as McCarthy began to research her defense against Hellman, it turned out  she was right, more correct than she imagined.  Just as Hammett was a compulsive  womanizer, Hellman was a compulsive liar.  Hellman, the proud witness before the  House Un-American Activities Committee who defied her inquisitors with her own  memorable line—”I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year's  fashions”—lied as other people breathed.  It was second nature to her, part of  her personality as a dramatist; she made things up, borrowed and blended events  to suit her narrative—she never let the facts get in the way of a good story in  the manner prescribed by the old newspaper reporter's aphorism.  In her own  words, “Everyone's memory is tricky, and mine's a little trickier than  most.”

Most famously, the incident involving a woman named “Julia“  recounted in Hellman's memoirs, a tale subsequently made into a movie  featuring Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave, was disputed by the very woman on whose  life it was based.

Jane Fonda in “Julia”

The case dragged on for years, ending only with Hellman's death in 1984 as  her estate decided not to pursue it any further.  McCarthy felt cheated out of a  victory she knew would be hers had the case gone to trial.